Sarcophagus of the Spouses – archaic Etruscan art


© Musée du Louvre, dist. RMN / Philippe Fuzeau

During the second half of the 6th century BC, Etruscan art changed. They were influenced by the oriental Greek culture that came along with the population leaving Asia Minor because of the Persian threat. Artists went to Etruria, which means it had favorable conditions for artistic production. The Ionians artists, newly arrived, developed workshops for ceramic, paintings and probably bronzes. They brought with them their Ionian culture which, modified the archaic Etruscan art.

The sarcophagus of the Spouses, created around 520/10 BC, is entirely made of terracotta, and the paint is still visible. Its proportions are pretty impressive, especially for a clay model, since its is a little bit over one meter high, 69 cm wide and almost two meters long! The sarcophagus was discovered by the Marquis de Campana in 1845 in a Cerveteri necropolis.

sarcophagus detail

© Musée du Louvre, dist. RMN / Philippe Fuzeau

The sarcophagus shares the idea of the family and the banquet. Banquets (or symposia) were seen as a celebration of the funerary world and happiness in the other world. The protagonists are lying down on a klinè (sort of a bed used to eat at symposia) such as banqueters in Asia Minor. The woman has an essential spot in symposia, unlike in Greece. The man embraces his wife while she pours perfume drops in her husband’s hand, but the depiction is incomplete. The perfume is in an alabaster that she holds. Her other hand probably hold a pomegranate, an eternity symbol. The cushions are in a bota bag shape, which symbolizes the funerary ritual. There was a great deal Ionian influence in Etruria. Here, the eyes are slender and there is the archaic smile which we can also observe in Ionia. Their faces are full and in flesh. Even though there is lots of Ionian influence, there are still some Etruscan characteristics, such as the absence of coherence in the bodies’ volume, shoes with pointy ends, and the dramatization of the gestures. Jewelries and fabrics are very detailed. Everything is refined.

This is one of the most accomplished examples of a funeral receptacle. This chef-d’oeuvre is an imposing polychrome piece in two parts (the lid and the body of the sarcophagus). The assembling technique shows us the technical level at that time. We thought it was a sarcophagus because of its large dimensions, but it is more likely a funerary urn. There is only one other example like this one, preserved in the Villa Giulia in Rome. Cerveteri’s sculptors mastered the monumental terracotta sculpture. They used this material because terracotta has a flexibility that gives a lot of possibilities and allowed craftsmen to mitigate the stone shortage.


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